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Melvin Earl ("Bill") Maron
In Memoriam

Melvin Earl ("Bill") Maron

Professor of Information, Emeritus

UC Berkeley
Melvin Earl Maron, always known as “Bill,” died of congenital heart disease on September 28, 2016, aged 92 in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Bill Maron was born in Bloomfield, New Jersey, on January 23, 1924, the son of immigrant Jews from the Ukraine. He enrolled in Newark College of Engineering in 1942, then enlisted in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. After basic training he was sent to the Engineering College at the University of Nebraska before being deployed to France and Germany in the 56th Engineer Armored Battalion, Third Army, 11th Armored Division. His service included liberation of a German concentration camp.

After returning to the University of Nebraska, he received a B.S. in mechanical engineering in 1945 and a B.A. in physics in 1947. Moving to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy under the supervision of Professor Hans Reichenbach, with a dissertation on the meaning of probability in 1951. He was an instructor teaching logic at UCLA during 1951-52. Maron then worked in industry as an engineer at IBM and at the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation. He was hired as a mathematician in the Computer Science Department of the RAND Corporation. During this period he was involved in the emerging areas of automatic indexing, information retrieval, probabilistic methods, and relational database design. With John Haanstra he received a U.S. patent entitled “Logical decision machine for sentential calculus.”

Bill married Dorothy Elizabeth Mastin in August 1948. They had a daughter, Nadia, and a son, John. After Nadia died in 1987, Bill and Dorothy adopted Nadia’s infant daughter, Sophie.

In 1966, Bill Maron was appointed full professor in UC Berkeley’s School of Librarianship, now the School of Information. Initially, he was also part-time director of the Berkeley branch of the Library Research Unit, a multicampus organized research unit then headquartered at UCLA. His interests focused more on abstract formal analyses than on practical applications and he received a grant from the National Science Foundation for work on the foundations of information retrieval. He taught the school’s introductory course, “Introduction to Information Science,” and classes related to information retrieval and information technology. He was also interested in cybernetics and had a dry sense of humor. He was the principal advisor of three doctoral dissertations relating to information retrieval and one on the use of telefacsimile.

Bill Maron wrote numerous expository articles on information retrieval and was coauthor of two classic papers. One was with John L. Kuhns: “On relevance, probabilistic indexing, and information retrieval,” Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery 8 (1960): 216-244. This is widely regarded as the seminal paper that gave rise to the so-called “probabilistic approach” to information retrieval. The foundational notion here was the “probability ranking principle”, according to which the output of a document retrieval system is seen as a ranking in descending order of probability of relevance to the information need. The probabilities were to be established using classical probability theory, rigorously applied.

The other classic paper related to an evaluation of a leading software package used for searching large text corpora. Working with David C. Blair, Maron found that its retrieval performance was far worse than anyone had imagined because of failure to take into account the vagaries of natural language, such as synonyms, antonyms, and euphemisms. Because of legal threats by the software manufacturer, their findings were delayed for several years and eventually published in a sanitized form as: Blair, David C. & M. E. Maron, “An Evaluation of Retrieval Effectiveness for a Full-Text Document-Retrieval System,” Communications of the ACM, 28 (1985): 280-299. This paper was elaborated in their “Full-Text Information Retrieval: Further Analysis and Clarification,” Information Processing & Management, 26 (1990): 437-447.

Bill Maron served on the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate’s Committee on Library (1975-1978), and various committees within the school.

After 25 years, Bill retired from Berkeley in 1991 and later moved to Colorado Springs. With Dorothy, his wife of 67 years, Bill worked with many nonprofit groups concerned with social equality and environmental protection. Dorothy died in early September 2016 at the age of 91. Bill died just over three weeks later. They were survived by their son, John Maron, and their granddaughter, Sophie Shafter.

Michael K. Buckland
William S. Cooper
Mary Kay Duggan